Everywhere I look, the empty gaze of one – two, three, five; oh my god, dozens of – glassy eyes are staring back, watchful and hateful. They chitter merrily to each other as I tear through rooms, desperately seeking the outlier secreted somewhere in the mass of giggling, squirming china dolls. Twice I run out of time – I’m so panicked, I don’t even see the thing when it’s right in front of me – and then they swarm me, lifting horrifying, segmented appendages to attack, and I properly scream this time, loud enough that my next-door neighbour hears me via an open window and hesitantly knocks on the door to ensure I’m okay.
It’s not entirely Capcom’s doing that I’m a screamy, jumpy mess – I effed myself up watching the (terrible) 1987 horror Dolls when I was still in junior school and my fear of those frozen china faces has never quite left me – but it’s as though the developer reached into my brain, jotted down my worst nightmare, stuck it in Resident Evil Village, and then forced me to relive it.
It is to the developer’s credit, however, that this neat, traditional home is such a triumph of understated spooks and masterful level design. Later, when I’m lost within a labyrinthine factory that long outstays its welcome, I’ll realise how unusual – and special – House Beneviento is; even if I wasn’t quite able to appreciate it while I was trapped there, racing through shadowy corridors and frantically hunting for a place to hide. It’s terrifyingly brilliant and brilliantly terrifying in equal measure.
Village picks up where RE7 left off, and we reprise our role of Ethan Winters, he of I-can-staple-my-severed-hand-back-on-with-chem-fluid fame. I’m not going to go into any of the specifics because even a light tease will spoil not just the story but the pacing, too, but just like RE7, Village is very much a game of two halves, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. It’s a shame, really, because the first half of Village is bloody spectacular – literally.
Early locations like House Beneviento are Resident Evil Village at its best. Later, when you’re touting a small armoury and blasting away wave after wave of Lycans – a fancy word for werewolves – you’ll forget how small and weak you felt in earlier segments. It’s not that I stomped through the entire game feeling bigger and stronger than I was – your supplies are rare and not always easy to spot, so, observing full survival horror tradition, Ethan is often on the cusp of running out of supplies and crafting ingredients – but there’s a surprising turn in the final act that means the game you finish is very different to the one you began.
That said, I found Village’s combat less vexing than its predecessor, and its boss fights are considerably less complex, although I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a good thing or a bad one. Yes, there are some tanky fights – even though I attack as much as I can with my knife to preserve ammo, I still often found myself running low – and I feel there’s a stronger emphasis on combat this time around, perhaps closer to RE5 and 6 than its immediate predecessor. But only late-game – and you’ll understand what I mean by that when you get there yourself – did I feel stacked to the point of invincibility.
It should come as no surprise, then, that there’s a good array of weapons, which is just as well, as you’ll get to use all of them – even the guns you don’t like so much – due to limited ammo. A mysterious travelling merchant, Duke, pops up at strategic points along the way with supplies, upgrades, and more, to help keep Ethan in tip-top shape, and even though ammo is scarce, you’ll nonetheless spend as much time in your inventory moving stuff around to maximise space – pro tip: upgrade your inventory at every opportunity you get – as you do taking down agitated werewolves. And while, ostensibly, less bloodthirsty players can opt for flight instead of fight, my experience of the narrow village streets and castle corridors suggests this might be harder in practice than in theory.
Sadly, there’s no opportunity to head back to mop up missing recipes or collectables, either. Once the game is over, it’s over, so if you’re a completionist, all I can say is: slow down. It’s not super long – I finished the campaign in 12.5 hours on standard difficulty, and a lot of that time was spent happily backtracking to find missing items and/or considering puzzle solutions (two, in particular, had me stuck for an embarrassingly long time) – but it’s so, so frustrating that once you hit a point of no return, there’s no way to get back. Exploring the titular Village itself is such a pleasure – it’s full of wonderful environmental storytelling and has so many secrets to share with you! – it’s such a shame you’re denied the chance to revisit once your war with the Four Lords of the Village is over.
The further into the story you progress, though, the weaker it becomes, as though the beginning and end were designed by two entirely different teams. I know there’s always an element of this in all Resident Evil games – RE7’s sudden pivot to the tanker section was so unexpected it gave me whiplash – but this disconnect impacts both momentum and atmosphere. Yes, there’s plenty of diversity in its environments – you’ll not just visit the village and Castle Dimitrescu but also a sunken town and a killing factory and an abandoned mine, amongst other places – but all four Lords are not created equally, which means your time with them won’t feel equally validating, either. Some are terrifically frantic scrambles, but others are so weak and frustrating, they occasionally feel more like time-wasters than meaningful encounters.
There are more annoyances, too. Sometimes the button prompts don’t pop when they should, which is frustrating at best and lethal at worst. Other times, the signposting is so weak, it’s hard to know what you’re meant to do next, and I wasted a lot of my precious ammo shooting invincible creatures that at the time, I didn’t know were invincible. Despite its frosty exteriors, Resident Evil Village is a beautiful place with plenty of opportunities to abuse your screenshot button, but Capcom won’t let you take in-game snaps (on PS5, anyway) unless it’s via its own Photo Mode system which stamps every vignette with an ugly copyright notice – that is if it lets you take a screenshot at all. And no matter how much I increased the brightness in-game or on my TV, it was still too bloody dark to see what was going on half the time.
Sackable offences? Of course not. And for all these flaws, Resident Evil Village was a thrilling adventure that kept me hooked from beginning to end, despite its jarring twists and turns. But the delightful level design isn’t enough to mitigate a strange, unsatisfying, plothole-ridden story, and that bizarre final act ultimately sullies what is an otherwise terrifyingly good horror romp.